Wireless Boom

The complexities of wireless technologies may be the reason why Middle East is falling short in adopting them. However, things are starting to change and CIOs need to start exploring ways of deploying these technologies.

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By  Maddy Reddy Published  January 26, 2005

|~||~||~|Wireless technology is reaching new frontiers. For example, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the agency responsible for regulating broadcast and electronic communications in the US has announced plans, which allow domestic air travelers to surf the internet and use
their mobile phones while they fly.

“We are pushing the limits in order to bring the information age to all corners of the world,” says FCC chairman Michael Powell. “We want it on the land, in the air, and on the sea.”
Although several airlines allow passengers to communicate with the ground through phones usually built into seatbacks, the quality of service is not up to scratch. The FCC approved a wireless internet (WiFi) offering from Boeing that uses satellites to get air travellers online.

Some international carriers offer Boeing’s “Connexion” service, including some flights to and from the United States. This year, FCC will auction airwaves or the radio frequency aimed at providing high-speed broadband internet to airline passengers at 30,000 feet.

It's just a matter of time, before other airlines across the world including the Middle East start offering similar wireless services. In today's world where employees are looking for the next chance to log on to the internet, check their e-mail from the nearest hotspot or cyber café, further confirms the wireless craze, which is changing the way companies do businesses.

On the homefront, the recently concluded Middle East Smartphones and WiFi/WiMax Summit, which drew in information and communications technology vendors, incumbent telecom operators, service providers, mobile operators and 35 official delegations from ministries of ICT (information and communications technology) and e-governments across the GCC, gave a glimpse into the future of wireless.

While the region’s interest in mobility and wireless is new found, the technology as such has existed in one form or the other for sometime. “Broadband wireless access is not a new technology. It’s been there for many years. However, with the WiMax Forum and WiFi Alliance driving the ecosystem of interoperable standards, service providers, vendors and carriers ecosystem have brought in an economy of scale, which was not there before,” says clarifies Carl Schmitt, service provider market manager at Intel Europe Middle East & Africa (EMEA).

To put things in perspective, in 2003 the number of hotspots or public wireless internet access areas in EMEA region stood at 9500. However, it increased to 30,000 a year later. Furthermore, it is estimated that by 2008 there will be 700 million WiFi users, 350,000 hotspots, hundreds and millions of smartphones and handhelds and 70 million notebooks. 89% of these laptops will be wireless enabled.

Driving this phenomenal growth is the collective push of the ICT industry and corporates who want their employees to be more productive in an increasingly competitive and globalised environment.

“Employees spend only 30% of their time at the desk and that is not enough time for them to be productive. They spend the other time traveling, in meetings, at home, outside the office, away from their desks. If corporations want their employees to be productive, they need to provide continuous access to information, e-mails, database, the web, corporate network and the supply chain,” says Samer Alkharrat, service provider regional manager, Cisco Middle East.

In the first wave of computing in the 80s and 90s, enterprises and their employees were content with being chained to their desks for access to data and communication through fixed line phones. But in the mid 90s, thanks to mobile phones and internet, a simple form of mobility was created giving employees access to voice and basic data services.

In addition, the new generation of wireless enabled laptops and datacentric mobile devices materialised the long talked about virtual office and mobile workers.

For the corporates who were content with a fast ethernet network (100 M/bps) and access to leased line of few megabytes, the emergence of Wi-Fi (Wireless Fidelity) a consumer-friendly designation for three IEEE standards, 802.11a/b/g offered corporate users with a laptop and a wireless adapter speeds topping out at 10 megabits per second (M/bps) to a maximum of 54 M/bps.

The Ethernet protocol, which relies on high frequency radio signals, transmits and receives data over distances of a few hundred feet allowing employees to work anywhere on the corporate campus. WiFi essentially provided a shot in the arm for users who were crippled for fast connectivity away from their desks.

One such company that has embraced wireless technology is Saudi Aramco. The oil company has more than 53000 employees spread across thousands of drilling sites and offices in the Middle East and Europe. Regular communication with its staff was turning out to be a challenge for Aramco; hence providing workers access to corporate data was high on the agenda.

Nabil Khalid Al-Dabal, manager, communications engineering and technical support, IT department at Saudi Aramco explains: “We have huge facilities spread across KSA, Europe both onshore and offshore. The drivers of our move toward wireless technology have been fast deployment, easy installation, meeting community requirements, network access wherever needed, linking buildings that are not connected to network with simple and rapid installation and at the same time provide scalability and mobility.”

Following a thorough risk and compliance assessment of frequency and compatibility with its existing infrastructure, Aramco started by rolling out the WiFi technology to link the facilities at Dhahran and Qatif, at a distance of 35km spread over a mesh of wireless access points. The tests produced throughput results of 13M/bps and spiking at 22Mbps. The technology had a theoretical speed limit of 36Mbps.

To link up areas on the wide area network (WAN) that was not facilitated by WiFi, Saudi Aramco invested in free space optics (FSO) line of sight links replacing leased lines carrying limited bandwidth with 100Mbps Fast Ethernet FSO links.

The company has deployed more than 700 access points and 24 outdoor hotspots spread over its educational facilities, warehouses and three airports. Aramco has gone one step further by mobilising its SAP R/3 enterprise resource planning (ERP) system so that its staff can access corporate data from anywhere within its operational area.

“The wireless environment provides us communication and data with a minimal footprint. It’s scalable, mobile and gives network access where it is needed. WiFi has given us fast deployment to meet our critical business and security requirements,” says Al-Dabal.

For instance, doctors at its hospitals can now access patient data and medical records via their handhelds. The field service application is also helping Aramco improve inspection and maintenance functions by allowing immediate recording of field data.

Furthermore, the wireless inventory system saves money and time by allowing Aramco to track existing inventory across its different sites. However, Al-Dabal does concede that keeping pace with multiple standards and emergence of new wires standards and ensuring security and protection of investments is not easy.

“The main challenges with wireless are the rapid pace of change in the technology and security, as we need to maintain availability, integrity and confidentiality.”

While Saudi Aramco, considering its exceptional size and geographically dispersed locations has been an early adopter, most enterprises are still grappling with technology issues and complexity of management.

“We have seen an increasing demand mainly from the small-to-medium size businesses (SMBs), education and hospitality sectors. Other industries are either evaluating wireless or are in pilot phases, while some are working on company-wide deployment,” says Hani Nofal, enterprise accounts manager at 3Com Middle East.

The amplified uptake of wireless by SMBs and the education sector is understandable. Unlike large enterprise, these verticals have limited complexity, small number of IT users, less demands on return on investment (ROI). Even security issues aren’t as threatening and more so with relatively new infrastructure, adding wireless services are a step forward.

The American University of Beirut (AUB) took this approach. Operational since last October, the educational institiution rolled out a wireless grid architecture to provide secure, pervasive and high performance indoor/outdoor Wi-Fi coverage.

The 73-acre campus, which covers a vast array of facilities such as faculty buildings, student buildings, dormitories and gathering areas, university library and administration buildings serving over 6900 students was proving to be a challenge both for the administrators and students to communicate effecitvely.

The university's strategy to build a massive high performance WLAN was put in place because it wanted to improve productivity by providing access to a variety of data centre services. These services included e-mail, internet, library catalogue and journals, computer-based courseware, the student information system and intranet services. After evaluation, the university decided to standardise on wireless applications from Aruba Networks with integration and support from Triple C, Aruba’s Lebanese partner.

“Our vision is to deliver value to our students, faculty members and staff by providing ubiquitous and secure access to the university’s core business applications and intranet/internet services,” explains Rabih Itani, network and security manager, computing and networking services at AUB.

“We wanted a state-of-the-art wireless LAN (WLAN) solution with a predictable cost of ownership. By providing centralised, automated and easy to manage radio frequency capabilities built into the wireless network core, we will be able to predict and reduce the TCO. It [the WLAN] will provide our end users with productivity gains and simplified work flows, thereby delivering an even higher ROI.”

Consisting over 300 Aruba 802.11a/b/g grid points, Aruba wireless grid covers 33 multi-story buildings and 21 outdoor areas where students assemble. The dense deployment of grid points in user workspace allows AUB to provide high performance wireless connectivity when and where needed.

The software programmable, single radio, 802.11 a/b/g APs will be placed into seven zones of the AUB campus that are interlinked with wired meshed Gigabit Ethernet (1000 M/bps) connections. Grid points are also deployed in ceiling spaces to provide outdoor coverage using detachable antennas.

By bringing access points out of the ceiling and into the existing structured cabling infrastructure, AUB realises low cost and rapid wireless deployment, resulting in better coverage and capacity over conventional approaches.The wireless zones, which are managed by eight switches equipped with wireless IDS software allows AUB to automatically detect and eliminate rogue access points, wireless interference sources, ad-hoc networks and block a wide variety of wireless intrusions and attacks.

The phased deployment of one of the largest planned WLAN network in the Middle East is expected to be complete by September 2005. The vendor’s wireless grid provides AUB with a structured deployment model. Furhermore, the new wireless network seamlessly integrates into and complements the university’s existing layer 2/3 Gigabit Ethernet wired network.

For academic institutions such as AUB or enterprise users, accessing the network within the corporate perimeter is easy because security policies are standardised and there is no charge to access the LAN or the wireless network. Issues arise when employees leave their corporate network and enter into the public domain where security levels vary, costs differ and connectivity is not seamless.

However, managers in the Middle East enjoy limited benefits compared to their counterparts elsewhere. Enterprises are still faced with issues such as applications, integration with the wired network, roaming, billing, device management and security, but that is starting to change. To address such concerns, a new security standard known as 802.11i, has been designed by the WiFi Alliance, an industry consortium that promotes WiFi technology.

The improved standard includes a set of enhancements called WiFi Protected Access (WPA) available at new WiFi access points. Even software vendors such as Trend Micro are offering free anti-virus and anti-spam security software to secure handhelds. Similarly, vendors are shipping biometric enabled notebooks.

With technology and devices in place, the biggest bottleneck continues to be applications. Barring e-mail and personal information managers (PIM), most enterprises are yet to come to terms with mobilising their apps. To handle this, application vendors are now offering mobile middleware so that the back-end can communicate more efficiently with various mobile form factors.

“E-mail was the killer app for the internet and mobile. A lot of people now have devices to which one can deliver applications and content. We have the maturity of the networks in place...the critical mass of the wireless devices and the applications to run on it are all we need. It is just a matter of which application and how fast they will be adopted. The next wave of applications will be on the mobile side,” says Jagdish Bansiya, director of engineering at Sybase.

||**|||~||~||~|However, when IT managers travel outside the Middle East, they continue to face limitations of network coverage and seamless billing. Although, Gartner Group estimates the number of hotspots to shoot up to 151,768 in 2005, continued connectivity remains a serious issue. Hotspot roaming companies such as Boingo, iPass, GoRemote, PicoPoint offer seamless access to the internet to more than 20,000 hotspots.

This means executives can walk into any access points ranging from airports to coffee shops and instantly get internet access in most countries around the world, Middle East managers are yet to enjoy such perks. While Boingo offers 12000 hotspots globally across 32 countries, barring 31 hotspots in Kuwait, the vendor has none in the rest of Middle East. Even iPass.com has no hotspots in the region except Kuwait, while outside the Middle East it boasts of providing wireless access in over 150 countries.

“Right now customers have to use credit cards, prepaid cards and open accounts, which is cumbersome. Customers do not want to use that kind of wireless service. Service providers have to think from the end-user perspective and make it easy for them. They want a single unified bill, a trusted brands such as their existing mobile service provider or telco,” says Ben Van Donger, President & CEO of Picopoint.

Not having seamless roaming access to wireless internet services means business travellers will not have the seamless and continued service during their stop over in the Middle East. With WiFi barely getting off the ground and grappling with such fundamental issues in the regional market, the fledgling wireless technology is facing an onslaught of competing and complementing access technologies.

The telecom operators in the Middle East with technologies such as EDGE, 3G, GPRS, UMTS, UWB are enticing their voice-GSM customers with value-added data services. Even WiMax Forum, which is a nonprofit organisation, is pushing the IEEE 802.16 standard.

A clout of more than 170 members ranging from telcos to chipset vendors such as Intel to wireless and networking vendors are exploring the Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access (WiMax) opportunities. The technology not only promises a high-speed internet connection of about 75 M/bps, but also claims to complement a wider radius of about 30 miles versus a few hundred feet offered by WiFi.

“It is wrong to say all these technologies compete because they do not. Each access technology has different characteristics. Service providers have to cater to different needs. There is got to be the right combination of radio technologies to provide the IP access and businesses cannot use only one technology. It’s got to be a combination of multiple technologies. The key point to focus here is the seamless handover from one network coverage to another and unified billing,” says Alkharrat of Cisco.

Although telcos and vendors like Cisco that serve both the networking and telecom customers claim that these technologies are complementary to each other, such a symbiotic relationship is unfeasible. New WiFi standards such as the 802.11e specifically address the quality of service of voice-over internet protocol (VoIP) calls.

Similarly, the 802.11p addresses WiFi connections while moving at a high rate of speed, such as in a car or a train, since users need a reliable connection that does not keep dropping while making VoIP calls on the road. Yet another standard in development, 802.11r is all about handing off a connection from one hot spot to another, which would be necessary if VoIP were to ever be a threat to conventional mobile phones.

The complexity of WiFi may not make sense immediately, but when put into the context of new handhelds and smart phones the situation changes. For instance, new smart phones from vendors such as HP and PalmOne are equipped with integrated three-way wireless capabilities to offer GSM/GPRS and WiFi to give users high-speed wireless voice and data connectivity. These devices let users not only access their corporate networks, but more importantly offer highly portable IP telephony services.

With free software such as Skype and instant messengers, mobile workers can make international phone calls for a few cents, saving the company a tidy amount. WISPs (wireless internet service providers) can potentially provide a virtual mobile network, while ISPs can offer wireless services and mobile service providers can offer internet, which means every service provider can compete in every other market. While this is a good opportunity for business customers, incumbent operators and mobile providers who have pumped in billions of dollars, such technology could prove to be a raw deal.

“If voice over WiFi takes off then all the big carriers will have to support it. It will happen at some stage.... so it is better that they embrace and capitalise on the market opportunity. If the mobile service providers and telcos need to compete and survive against such technology...then that is the way it is,” adds Picopoint’s Van Donger.
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